Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oh Nurse, like, more meds

Now I understand why young people think we old people are crotchety. It’s because old people get that way from hearing young people suck all intelligence and nuance and grace from the English language.

I assume it happens in other languages and countries as well, thus explaining the global rise of crotchety-osity.

Several weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., and a teenaged girl plopped down on a chair next to me, placing both of her pink-sneakered feet directly onto the upholstered furniture as she made a cell-phone call that opened with, “Like, where are you?” I wanted to bolt.

“Are you, like, still at the mall? Oh. My. God. Like, I’m still here, and it’s like sooooo boring.” I wanted to scream.

“There’s like, nothing to do.” Let me point out that we were in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Unfortunately, the museum had no, like, video games.

She went on: “Waitwaitwait listen. Like my cousin? Rachel? Like she was here last year? And, like, she got so bored? That they, like, had to practically put her in like an institution?” I left.

My wife insists that all generations after ours will speak with the question inflection (where sentences? and phrases? all end with an upturn? of the voice?) and with “like” sprinkled throughout all speech. I say put me in a retirement home now. She says it won’t help — that all staff members will speak that way from this point forward. I say I’ll need good medications.

Yes, I have complained to you about both of those uses in the past. However, the problem seems to be spreading. Perhaps you, dear readers, need to be even more conscientious about confronting the guilty parties and hollering “Stop it!” very loudly, just to raise language awareness.

Admittedly, even those of us who avoid the question inflection and the like-like irritants still make our share of silly mistakes. Let me offer you what might be an error you’ve not considered before. Have you ever mentioned your hot water heater to anyone? Do you see the error?

Why would you spend money for a machine that would heat hot water? If the water’s already hot, you’re done. Pass the soap.

In fact, water heaters (the term you’ll want to use, I hope) heat water that is not hot. Most of the time, that underground water is pretty cool when the heating starts. In that case, if “water heater” just isn’t enough for you, you might want to go with “cold water heater.” People will think you’re bonkers, but it might help you avoid saying “hot water heater.”

Next we turn to a description that you yourself must have used. I owe an awareness of it to my friend and sociology professor Paul Leslie, who pointed out to me some years ago that talking about “the real world” is usually a specious use. Putting the MTV reality series “The Real World” aside, most of the time we refer to “the real world,” we’re saying that the current living conditions are not truly the real world.

Example: “You think you have it bad as a college sophomore — just wait until you have to function in the real world.” In fact, most of the time we use that phrase, we’re talking to or about students, and usually they’re in college. Not always, but usually.

The life of a young person, whether in high school or in college, is the real world for them at that time. Deadlines are real; tests and exams are real; relationships are intense and very real. So are all the daily challenges of food and laundry and beer (oops). The realities of a young adult might not be the same as those of an older adult, but they are no less real.

Think of it this way: Even if you’ve said something about a young adult having it easier now than in the real world, I doubt that you’d turn to a 9-year-old and say, “Yeah, you think that broken bike is serious? Wait till you get in the real world!”

I know I’d never do that, and here’s why. The wee one, tears flowing down his or her scrunched-up little face, would likely say: “Um, like, my bike? That’s, like, broken? Well, um, it, like, is the real world to me.”


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